Idyllic Train Ride on the West Coast of Japan

[Third in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan.]

photo credit:

Tuesday, we left Tokyo behind and relied on trains and vans to deliver us to several rural destinations in Northern Honshu and Hakodate. Entering Tokyo Station is like diving into a swimming pool – a very crowded swimming pool. Thousands of people are rushing every direction, waving their IC card (commuter card) at the turnstile or inserting a ticket. The station includes at least five underground levels with platforms serving over 400,000 passengers on approximately 3,000 trains per day.  The station is the convergence point of approximately a dozen train lines — ranging from locals to rapid express trains, limited express trains and bullet trains (the Shinkansen) – as well as the Metro system. Over the course of our trip, we experienced all of those, a feat I wouldn’t have tried without a guide or Japanese speaker, at least at the outset.

Masumi Nishio

Masumi Nishio

With the help of our local tour operator, Masumi Nishio, we successfully arrived at the correct Shinkansen platform. Barriers were stretched across the doorways of the waiting train; the cleaning crew was shining it up for its next journey. When they finished, a dozen cleaners in identical Aloha shirts and straw fedoras (with hibiscus flower accents) lined up in front of the train, faced the passengers, and made a low synchronized bow. You won’t see that on Amtrak.

The reserved tourist class section was roomy and sparklingly clean. Doors hissed open when we neared them. Not even the toilet required a manual touch to flush; you simply waved your hand.

At exactly 12:17 p.m., on schedule, we exited the Shinansen in Niigata and followed the signs and arrows to the JR Line (signed in English). Eventually we located the electronic sign with platform assignments and recognized our train by the departure time. Twelve minutes later, we were headed toward Tsuruoka on a limited express train.

In the US, I wouldn’t have dared such tight train connections, especially in unknown cities. Our tightest was eight minutes, but at no point were we pressed. Part of the reason was due to good planning by our travel agent, who suggested shipping our large bags ahead through a takkyubin service. We had our large bags at the ANA Intercontinental baggage desk at 8 a.m. and reconnected with them three days later.

As we traveled north, we were soon past the warehouses and mirror-image houses and apartment buildings that ring the outskirts of Tokyo. Pancake flat, we couldn’t see the sea which was just a few miles west. To the right, a green carpet of rice fields rolled up to the base of the mountains, where twin ski runs tattooed the hillside. Every five minutes or so, fields gave way to clusters of two story houses with shining ceramic tile roofs, mostly black but occasionally brightly colored, interspersed with small vegetable gardens and occasional postage-stamp-sized family cemetery plots. Most of the houses were constructed of stucco, but occasionally we glimpsed older wood frame buildings that would have fit in 100 years ago.

Japan train ride

Japan train ride 2

Tall pylons held power lines that criss-crossed the landscape, looking like they could stride over the many muddy streams that rushed from hills toward the sea.

Finally the train tracks edged next to shining blue water. Tokyo’s haze dissipated into clear ocean air. Close to shore, orange flags marked mooring locations for commercial fishing boats. Our view was interrupted by sudden entries into tunnels carved through steep hillsides, which became a visual staccato as they increased in frequency.

The mountains crept close to the coast, and rocks jutted up in the sea, speckled with guano Cypress trees clung to the steep hillsides all the way to the water. In one small cove, a beach party of six young men was underway, torsos bare to the sun. Farther along, a family set up a green sun shade to shelter their beach picnic.

Rocky islet Japan coastline

Only stretches of the coastline were left to their natural shape. Cement sea walls and tetrapods, four-legged concrete structures that look like jacks thrown by Gargantua, emasculate at least half of the coastline’s raw beauty. Several miles later, hundreds of the tetrapods were lined up, vaguely ominous, ready to be deployed against the sea. Tsunami warning speakers, everywhere in Japan, were a grim reminder of Japan’s seismic vulnerabilities.

Just before Namara-gu, a fleet of fishing boats were moored quietly in a manmade harbor. A small shrine stood to the right, beyond a faded red torii gate, with a few lonely graves. The hillside rising above it was reinforced with lattice-work concrete to prevent erosion. To the left, a tiny, tall island shaped like a sugar loaf rose steeply out of the sea, ringed by a “shimenawa,” a straw rope to which white zigzag paper streamers are attached to mark a sacred place.

The train was quiet except for two middle aged women who chatted and laughed across the aisle. An old woman studied a travel brochure for a while before taking her shoes off and nodding off, leaning her head against the train window.

Arriving in Tsuruoka, a sprawling town of about 140,000 in the Yamagata prefecture, our driver picked us up and drove us about 20 km through the small streets to our inn in Haguro, a small town near the base of the 2,466 steps that climb to the summit of Haguro-san (Mt. Haguro).

Next: Daishin-bo, our temple lodging, and Haguro-san

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